As China’s once-in-a-decade leadership transition begins in Beijing next month, the government’s treatment of high-profile critics such as the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo will invariably garner attention inside the country and abroad. The persecution of such dissidents certainly merits discussion, but it must not obscure a larger phenomenon: the emergence of widespread populist activism in China.
At first, Alison Klayman’s new documentary, “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry,” seems to fit this perspective, by focusing on the singular work, political activism, and daily life of Ai Weiwei, the world-famous Beijing-based artist and outspoken government critic. In raising subjects that are usually airbrushed from the Chinese media, the film contains much that the Chinese leadership will dislike. It highlights Ai’s international celebrity and his ability to mobilize large numbers of people through social media, the naked brutality of the Chinese police, and the still-debilitating aftereffects of Mao’s Cultural Revolution.
But “Never Sorry” does much more than call attention to the work of Ai and the well-known artists, writers, and critics he interacts with. The most poignant aspect of the documentary -- and the one that senior Chinese leaders would find most alarming -- is expressed by a woman who had volunteered with a project that Ai led to compile the names of schoolchildren who died in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake when their shoddily constructed schools collapsed. She recalls how, when the authorities asked her whom she was working for, she replied, “We were all volunteers, there on our own. The way I see it, we weren’t there as anybody’s ‘people.’ ”
The Chinese government does tolerate some state-dictated volunteerism; the Chinese Ministry of Internal Affairs had registered more than 10,000 civil society groups by 2011. When it serves the political interests of the Communist Party or the government, popular mobilizing is fine, as is the case with the periodic virulent anti-Japanese manifestations.
But the leadership perceives virtually all other forms of independent organizing as a threat. Despite this, broad public participation in activist causes has become one of the most potent political dynamics in China today. “Never Sorry” unveils some of these acts of defiance, calling attention to the hundreds of people who attended a party for Ai before authorities demolished his Shanghai studio and to the countless volunteers who helped compile the list of children killed in the earthquake. As China’s new leaders take control next month, the Communist Party will surely continue to prioritize social stability over much-needed political reforms. Absent such changes, however, Chinese citizens’ growing awareness of their rights and their willingness to take action in the public sphere will challenge that quest.
In the aftermath of Mao’s 1966–76 Cultural Revolution, when millions of Chinese were forced to participate in political campaigns that involved the physical abuse, incarceration, and public humiliation of those perceived to be disloyal to the state, many in China sought to avoid critical contact with the government. But within a decade, students, workers, and others came together to demand political reform. They wrote pro-democracy essays, engaged in increasingly public debates, and aired their complaints and protests on a stretch of brick wall in Beijing that came to be known as Democracy Wall. The government responded with a crackdown, culminating in the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.
Then, over the course of the 1990s, the first truly independent civil society organizations formed, but the state ensured that they gained no significant following. Some individual dissidents, such as Wei Jingsheng, Rebiya Kadeer, and the Dalai Lama, became reasonably well-known internationally, but as a result of domestic censorship, they were either unheard of or demonized inside the country. Many in China had well-developed views on the government and how it functioned, but the avenues for debate were narrow and dangerous.
In the last decade, the ground has shifted, and more people in China sense that they can influence the government. It is no longer necessarily dangerous to complain about the party at the dinner table. Some modest legal reforms have in theory granted people greater access to information. Despite the so-called Great Firewall, which the government created to censor the Internet, there are now more than 500 million Web users in China. This power was demonstrated by the online circulation of Charter ’08, a pro-democracy manifesto issued 20 years after the 1989 crackdown that garnered over 10,000 signatures in a matter of weeks and led to Liu Xiaobo’s 11-year prison sentence on charges of “incitement to subvert state power.” Because Beijing can no longer wholly control information or monitor all exchanges, people can learn about and discuss issues that in the past would have been unknowable.
This newfound empowerment occasionally allows members of the public to mobilize against corruption and other official misconduct, often with an unprecedented degree of anonymity. Equipped with a better sense of what Chinese law allows and what rights people are ostensibly guaranteed, more people in China are inclined to demand that the government and officials actually live by those rules. The effect is that people can now challenge the government directly in the hope of making change -- and sometimes they win. In 2011, for example, residents of the city of Dalian protested about the potential environmental hazards of a proposed chemical plant, prompting local authorities to halt its construction.
As “Never Sorry” shows, activist Chinese lawyers present the government with a particular challenge: they accept the legal system as it is and attempt to make it function as it should. The most courageous of these weiquan, or “rights defense” lawyers and legal activists, have litigated court cases against the government’s use of violence and coercion in the implementation of family planning policies, defended Chinese Christians or members of Falun Gong against charges of subversion, and offered legal counsel to Tibetans who participated in anti-Beijing protests. It’s no accident that as the Chinese government sought to stamp out any semblance of Arab Spring–like protests in the first half of 2011, members of this tiny community suffered the same fate as Ai Weiwei: a number of them were “disappeared” by the domestic security apparatus, held incommunicado for weeks, and often tortured in custody.
Just as many Chinese have become more willing and able to speak out against the government, the government has given people much to complain about. Growing inequality, pervasive corruption, and endless political scandals have undermined the party’s legitimacy. In September 2012, the nationalist Global Times reported that China’s Gini coefficient, which measures income inequality, had reached 0.438 percent, and described it as “a dangerous level of wealth inequality.” That the legal system remains predominantly an instrument of state power rather than a means of resolving grievances only fuels more calls for greater access to justice and accountability, particularly as citizens learn more about legal systems in other countries.
Chinese government statistics themselves suggest that popular unrest is on the rise: in 2010, the government reported roughly 180,000 “mass incidents” (illegal protests), more than four times the number a decade ago. Increasingly, activists have focused their efforts on changing national policies. After Tang Hui, a Hunan woman, was sentenced to 18 months of re-education through labor for demanding a more thorough investigation of her young daughter’s rape, more than 500,000 sympathetic comments were posted on Weibo, China’s most popular Web site. This initial outcry inspired online petitions calling on the National People’s Congress to reform or abolish its re-education practices, and in August, ten prominent Chinese lawyers wrote to the Ministries of Justice and Public Security, cautioning of the dangers of failing to do so. A similar incident took place in June 2012, when a photograph of a mother lying alongside her forcibly aborted fetus spread was posted on the Web. Public outrage grew so loud and spread so quickly that the Shaanxi Provincial Population and Family Planning Commission pledged to investigate the incident, and Internet users called for the one-child policy to be abolished.
The government’s response to these petitions, protests, and legal disputes depends largely on how visible and violent the challenges to officials are. Especially important is whether local officials fear missing promotions or bonuses if they fail to resolve their problems before they become a national scandal. In recent years, protests in or near the wealthier coastal cities against infrastructure development involving land expropriation or forced evictions have tended to yield solutions that satisfy some of the demonstrators’ demands. The government has occasionally halted construction projects, as it did in July 2012 following protests over a proposed waste treatment plant in Shanghai. Provincial or national officials have sometimes fired, demoted, or relocated local officials when particular problems reach a certain level of publicity, as was the case with a few Shandong officials in the wake of the dissident Chen Guangcheng’s escape from his home there. Too often, though, these local officials are not the only people responsible for the wrongdoing in question.
But protests about other issues, particularly those which the government portrays as national security threats or real embarrassments, can result in immediate and extraordinary brutality. Four years after largely peaceful protests swept through Tibet, the region is flooded with security forces, and the central government has taken no steps to address the underlying grievances. Some Tibetans have now resorted to a particularly grim type of protest: more than 50 have self-immolated since February 2009.
The Chinese government has long alleged that dissidents and civil society groups are “hostile forces” or foreign agents, regarding much activism as a threat to national security. But as more and more ordinary people in China take it upon themselves to better their communities, improve their legal system, and participate in public policy discussions, the government will be unable to simply dismiss their work. Mass organizing may appear “hostile” to a political party that is bent on controlling it, but it has become central to the lives of many Chinese, who now believe that they have a right to participate in public life.
Sophie Richardson is China director at Human Rights Watch.